Witherspoon was born Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon in New Orleans to John Witherspoon, a surgeon, and Betty Reese, a nurse and college professor. She is a direct descendant of Scottish-born John Witherspoon, a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence and sixth president of Princeton University, who was also a Presbyterian minister. Because her father worked for the US military in Wiesbaden, Germany, she lived there for four years as a small child. After returning to the United States, Witherspoon spent much of her childhood and adolescence in Nashville, Tennessee. She has an older brother, John, who works as a real estate broker. After graduating from the prestigious private all-girl's Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, she attended Stanford University as a literature major. After completing a year of her studies, she left Stanford to pursue her acting career.
Witherspoon began her career in local commercials. Her first role was in a 1991 made-for-TV movie called Wildflower, directed by Diane Keaton and starring Beau Bridges, William McNamara, and Patricia Arquette. That same year, at age 14, Witherspoon attended an open casting call for The Man in the Moon, intending to audition as a bit player. She was instead cast in the lead role, immediately capturing the attention of critics. Since, she has built up an impressive filmography, playing both comedic and dramatic roles, including performances as Vanessa in Freeway and Tracy Flick in Election. She was the voice of the animated character Greta Wolfecastle in The Simpsons episode The Bart Wants What It Wants.
She achieved fame and a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for her role as a fashion designer major who decided to become a law student to follow her ex-boyfriend in 2001's Legally Blonde, and became a leading environmental lawyer in its sequel Legally Blonde 2 for which she received a reported $15 million paycheck, making her one of Hollywood's top-paid actresses.
She has garnered critical praise and awards for her turn as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. Carter Cash, who died in 2003, personally approved of Witherspoon to play her. Witherspoon won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy, NYFCC, the FFCC, the SFFCC Award for Best Actress, the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) for best actress in a lead role, the British Academy's BAFTA for best actress in a lead role, the "Favorite Leading Lady" at the 32nd Annual People's Choice Awards, and the Academy Award for Best Actress for this role.
Witherspoon also runs a production company, Type A Productions. The company is named after her childhood nickname "Little Miss Type A."
Witherspoon met actor Ryan Phillippe at her 21st birthday party in March 1997, where she reportedly said to him, "You must be my birthday present." The pair were engaged in December 1998. Soon after, the couple starred together in the box office hit Cruel Intentions. They were married on a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina on June 5, 1999. They have two children together: daughter Ava Elizabeth, born September 9, 1999, and son Deacon, born October 23, 2003. Ava is named after Phillippe's grandmother, and Deacon after one of his distant relatives. Witherspoon and Phillippe have a pact that one of them will always be a full-time parent to the children, and they thus alternate filming schedules. Witherspoon is known for being a very hands-on mother, and she and her husband claim to have never employed a full-time nanny. The family resides in a gated community in Los Angeles.
In September 2005, Witherspoon and her children were celebrating daughter Ava's sixth birthday at Disney's California Adventure theme park when they were approached by paparazzi photographer, Todd Wallace. After Witherspoon declined to pose for photos at close range, police say Wallace became enraged and pushed a child out of the way, while hitting another with his camera, in his efforts to photograph the actress.
Wallace also allegedly shoved two theme park employees when they attempted to restrain him, and cursed at Witherspoon, causing several children to burst into tears. As a result of the altercation, Wallace was arrested and faced misdemeanor charges. However, before the case went to trial, Wallace was found dead in his apartment in Brentwood. Police are currently investigating the cause of death.